Before the Barking Gets Too Loud

from: The Los Angeles Times - April 29, 2001

by Thomas Lynch

Ariel's Gift: Ted Hughes, Sylvia Plath, and the Story of "Birthday Letters" By Erica Wagner; W.W. Norton: 256 pp., $25.95

"O body swayed to music," Yeats wrote permanently, "O brightening glance, How can we know the dancer from the dance?" To draw the line where the maker ends and the made thing begins, between creator and creation, is an old dilemma. Between poets and their poems the borders likewise blur, often by design.

In "Ariel's Gift," Erica Wagner works seamlessly among the lives and times and responsorial lines brought into being by the alchemy between Ted Hughes and Sylvia Plath, two of the last century's fiercest voices and finest poets. Part biography, part literary criticism, part homage, this remarkable book avoids the temptation of soap opera and tabloid that has attended much that has been written about these gifted and damaged partners. It treats their beautiful, sad, hurtsome and passionate attachments and separations as they did themselves--as fodder for their work, their poems, their art. "And the nature of art," writes Wagner in her introduction, "is infinite':

"Poems--by Ted Hughes, by Sylvia Plath, by any poet--may be linked to events but they are not those events; they are themselves. Nearly drowning out the clear voice of poetry are the many voices of those who knew these two poets, who have their perceptions, too, of what was 'really' going on at this moment or that moment. I did not conduct many interviews during the writing of this book--none of the 'so what did she say then?' variety."

Her book is the better for it.

The difficult particulars are well known now: an American poet in London on a Fulbright Scholarship meets a tall, handsome poet at Cambridge--their common ground. It is February 1956. They are poets by declaration, not by reputation. They are young, beautiful, smitten and, in due course, married. They begin to produce poems of great force, which are well received in her country and in his. They become parents of a daughter and a son. They cross the Atlantic, to her country, then return to his. They write, teach, love, hurt. He leaves her and takes up with another woman. She writes and writes against the tightening spiral of depression. She had attempted suicide years before, vexed by the ghost of her dead father. Abandonment and mortality stalk her. When there is nothing more to do, she kills herself, one of those tidy, ladylike, domestic suicides involving a gas stove. The trouble is in the suicide note: a manuscript of 40 poems of surpassing power, left behind. "Ariel" is published in 1965, edited by her husband, who has inherited the duties of her literary estate and the upbringing of their children. It becomes that rare thing for a book of poems, both a critical and commercial success, as well as a cottage industry for the emerging victim-chic feminist strain of literary analysis.

Robin Morgan, feminist poet (and later editor of Ms. magazine), wrote a poem calling for his (Hughes') dismemberment; she viewed him plainly as a murderer. The headstone of Plath's grave in Yorkshire was repeatedly defaced, the "Hughes" of her married name chipped away.

Thirty-some years later, possessed of the private knowledge that he is dying of cancer, her husband, now the English poet laureate, breaks his longstanding silence on these matters with the publication of "Birthday Letters," a collection of poems written over the decades in which he addresses his dead partner in love and poetry and heartbreak. It wins the available praise and prizes. Nine months later, he too is dead.

Wagner, an American writer living in London and the literary editor of The Times, manages to tell us the story of their lives' intersections, by bringing us the story of the intersection of poems in "Ariel" and "Birthday Letters." Her text is both narratively engaging and scholastically comprehensive--Wagner cross-references poems, journals, letters and biography--and draws the reader in the direction of the images, metaphors and lines distilled from both poets' work. Still, she is aware of the literary history she has been witness to:

"Birthday Letters' appeared, so it seemed, out of nowhere. In the summer of 1997, Ted and Carol Hughes came to lunch at the Gloucestershire home of Matthew Evans and his wife, Caroline Michel. As Evans relates: 'At the end of the lunch Ted said, I have another manuscript for you, it's rather long. He went on--it's in the car; it's about Sylvia ....'

"When he finally saw the manuscript a few days later, Evans was amazed and somewhat fearful: He knew its publication would have to be very carefully handled. Its existence was kept absolutely secret--a quite remarkable feat in the gossipy world of British publishing. The book was offered to The Times for serialization in November of 1997 ....

"The first day of serialization was 12 days before the book's actual publication, which Hughes had insisted be 29 January ... Poets and critics who had never imagined they would see so much of Hughes's heart were astonished, and this book of difficult, complex poems became an instant bestseller on both sides of the Atlantic."

The week that Hughes died, in October 1998, I was teaching at Lumb Bank, the stone cottage in West Yorkshire near his boyhood home, that Hughes bought in 1969, lived in briefly, let stand vacant, then sold to the Arvon Foundation to be used for writers' residencies. Up the hill a little walk is the Parish Church of Heptonstall, where, in the churchyard, "Sylvia Plath Hughes 1932-1963" is buried.

"That is not your mother but her body," Hughes writes in "The Dogs Are Eating Your Mother," the penultimate poem in "Birthday Letters":

I buried her where she fell.
You played around the grave. We arranged
Sea-shells and big veined pebbles
Carried from Appledore
As if we were herself. But a kind
Of hyena came aching upwind.
They dug her out. Now they batten
On the cornucopia
Of her body. Even
Bite the face off her gravestone,
Gulp down the grave ornaments,
Swallow the very soil.
So leave her.

The "kind of hyena" Hughes warns against is the kind who mistakes the events of a poet's life for the moment of a poem's creation. Wagner has gotten it right, and it is good to have--before the barking gets too loud, as it surely will--an ear tuned, as it is in "Ariel's Gift," to "the clear voice of poetry."

Copyright 2001 / Los Angeles Times

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